Published on:

Children of Famous Artist Seek Restitution


This case is in regards to the estate of Mark Rothko. Kate Rothko and Christopher Rothko are petitioners, while charitable beneficiaries are also cross-petitioners. The respondents are Bernard J. Reis, Theodoros Stamos, Morton Levine, Marlborough Gallery, Inc., Marlborough A.G., and Francis K. Lloyd. The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. was listed as an intervener.

The Case

A New York Probate Lawyers said Mark Rothko, a worldwide renowned abstract expressionist artist passed away on February 25, 1970. The petitioners are the artist’s children. The children seek restitution for their father’s estate, both in terms of paintings that were sold by the parties involved, and in financial compensation for the paintings which were already sold to non-party purchases. They also seek to have their legal fees compensated. Essentially, the suit is about whether the children, should have control over their father’s estate, or whether the executors named should. The Attorney General represented the people of New York due to the charitable interest in the case. Reis and Stamos are charged with acting in a conflict of interest, while Levine is charged with negligence regarding the sale of the property. All are charged with not fulfilling their legal obligations correctly.


The respondents were prohibited from selling paintings without court permission, although the children allege that this has taken place. Mr. Reis is accused of a conflict of interest based on his positions as executor, friend and professional advisor of the deceased and as director of Marlborough Gallery. His positions as executor and as director for the gallery had opposing interests. Because of the direct conflict of interest, the courts evaluate his behavior as the same as self-dealing.

Levine and Stamos also face a problem because they knew that Reis was acting in a direct conflict of interest and did nothing, leaving them liable, in addition to Stamos’ own actions against the estate which lead to further liability. Nassau County Probate Lawyer said because of the failure of the three to properly execute the will of the estate, the court saw fit to remove them as fiduciaries.

When determining restitution to the estate, the value of the paintings sold off by the Marlborough respondents needed to be calculated. A well-respected art historian, Professor Shapiro, compared Rothko’s value and popularity to that of artists like Jackson Pollock. Others, including the Director of the Guggenheim and an international art dealer also testified to the importance and value of Rothko in the art world.

Further complicating the issue is that the respondents were found to be in violation of the order issued by the court which restrained them from in any way disposing of any of the paintings included in the estate. NY Probate Lawyers said this entitles the estate for restitution for those paintings which were improperly sold off. The court also needs to determine if the correct value for reparations to the petitioners should be the value of the work when it was sold, or the present value. However, following Scott on Trusts and Restatement of Trusts, it is found that the petitioners in such a case should be entitled to the value of the objects at present day if they have appreciated in value, which the paintings have. The petitioners used Ben Heller, an expert, to evaluate the value of the paintings and papers included in their father’s estate. However, the courts thought his values were too high and had to lower them somewhat when assessing damages.


At the end of the process, the Marlboroughs and Lloyd were fined $3,332,000 for violating orders laid down by the court. If any of the paintings which contributed to the value of this liability are returned, that amount will be subtracted from the fines owed by any of the respondents. Levine is separately liable for $6,464,880 plus interest. To discharge their liabilities to the estate, Reis, Stamos, MNY and MAG were found owing $9,252,000. Finally, the 658 paintings included in the estate which had not already been sold are to be returned to the family.

Stephen Bilkis & Associates offers legal services throughout the metropolitan area of Manhattan. If you find yourself in need of legal advice, whether it be for am estate administration, will or probate matter, you may contact one of our offices to set up an appointment for your free consultation. Our lawyers will help you determine what your best course of legal action will be based on your current situation.

Contact Information